PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Earlier this week, the head of the Rhode Island Department of Human Services (DHS) told 12 News that the state was awaiting guidance from the federal government to resume the Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer program after it won approval from Congress.
Legislators voted in September to allow states to extend the program through the 2020-21 school year and since then, the department has been waiting for more information on how to implement the benefits and whether any changes needed to be made, according to DHS Director Courtney Hawkins.
She said the DHS will be working with the R.I. Department of Education to make the necessary adjustments.
“There’s just some bureaucratic changes that we have to come through to be able to administer the program again,” Hawkins said. “They have made some tweaks, largely around recognizing that sometimes school isn’t closed directly and it’s something in between.”
Attendance is another challenge, according to Hawkins.
“The trick is going to be how we know if kids are in virtual learning or in school, and how we work with the Department of Education to use their data to ensure families receive the full benefit that they’re entitled to,” she explained.
Hawkins said for the most part, she doesn’t believe the experience will be much different than the program that was created in the spring, which provided EBT cards to homes that receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, as well as non-SNAP homes with school-aged children who qualified for free or reduced-price lunches through the National School Lunch Program.
“The program provides the value of the school meals for the days kids aren’t in school, if the school is closed or not operating for more than five days,” she said.
After the fifth consecutive day, families will receive $5.86 per day that the student is out of school.
Hawkins said families don’t need to apply for the program.
“We work with the Department of Education to understand who is on free and reduced-price lunch, and then we provide the benefit to those students,” she said.
According to the DHS, roughly 80,000 Rhode Island children benefitted from the P-EBT program in the spring and September. Hawkins said that number may increase as the pandemic continues to hinder the economy and more people rely on SNAP benefits.
“We are definitely seeing an increase in all of the programs that DHS administers,” Hawkins added. “We know that families are struggling. We’re seeing the number of families apply for SNAP go up.”
Hawkins said the DHS is working diligently to create their plan which will likely be implemented in December.
“We have to fulfill the federal government’s plan, requirements, submit the plan, have it approved,” she explained.
Anyone who qualified for the program during the months it was halted will receive benefits retroactive to Oct. 1 once the plan is approved. The benefits will automatically be added to families’ existing P-EBT cards, Hawkins said. If a family has lost their card, there will be a procedure to receive a new one.